Violent, Gory Images Actually Teach Kids, Adults to Think

Is this image of a dead fighter too graphic for D&D?
by Michael Karkabe-Olson

As many know, Wizards of the Coast is currently developing a Visual Guidelines document for D&DNext/5th edition. This document will eventually lay out the rules for WOC artists on what is acceptable and what is not. Jon Schindehette, in his last article, tackled the subject of violence and gore. Previously, he has asked how women should be portrayed in D&D art. He is senior creative director for Wizards of the Coast.

Personally, my concern is that “sanitizing” D&D art for 5th edition will go too far and ruin the fun for many who currently like to play the game. I also fear it will eliminate one of the most intriguing aspects about the game: that it teaches players to think, directly and indirectly, about the world around them.

I have to say one of my favorite illustrations in 4e is the one in the Players Handbook (page 297) with the dead fighter sprawled on the ground with blood trickling out of his nose and splattered around his head. The vacant look in his eyes is memorable and haunting. It is not gratuitous, but it is realistic, and it tells a story. As far as pushing an envelope goes, I think it pushed it, but is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I think D&D images should have more of this type of portrayal to show accurate repercussions of fighting. Why? Because violence without bloodshed only serves to glorify it. Think about it.

There is a reason why our government now refuses to allow the media to show dead, bloody bodies returning home from war. Such photographs, which were allowed during the Vietnam war, were a main reason so many people protested that war: because they actually saw the terrible images of war and what happened there.

Because of this, I have no qualms about letting my 10-year-old son see such images. It drives home the fact that war—real war and violence—are very serious issues in our world with very serious consequences and repercussions. That said, I know there are other parents out there who disagree with me, so I respect that. For that reason, I think all D&D books should have a "PG-13" sticker slapped on them and call it good. That takes care of the occasional half-exposed breast as well as violence.

I think blood, even a slight blood spatter, is fine and so is some creepy gore (like flesh hanging on zombies, etc.). It's been my experience that people who are against portrayals of violence and gore won't play D&D anyway. In fact, I know some pacifists who dislike such depictions, and they say the reason they are against such depictions is because they promote aggression and war. Well, that's their right. But there is no way you are going to take violence and war completely out of D&D, so why bother, whether you sugar-coat it or not.

These are the same people, mind you, who are also against allowing young children, usually boys, from playing with plastic guns and violent video games and, yes, role-playing games. Why? Because they believe—wrongly, of course—that such activities will lead those children to grow up and murder someone. My wife was one of those people. When our son was first born, she didn’t want him to ever to be a boy. Well, I have news for people who think like that: you can’t stop it.

My wife learned that, and so will you.

If you refuse to buy plastic guns for a boy, for instance, I can almost guarantee that he will someday pick up a stick or use his finger to point it at another kid and yell “bang!” It’s all part of the male psyche, and it’s all part of how males learn about violence and death.

And no, it’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that kid will grow up to shoot someone. As every parent who has been through this “horrifying” revelation has since come to realize, those kids typically grow up to be just fine.

Like I said, my wife initially had this stance with our own son. She didn’t want him to ever have a toy gun or play violent games or watch a violent television show. I looked at her askance at the time and knowingly, when she said this, replied: “good luck with that.” But I also told her I would respect her wishes and never expose him to such things. That lasted all of five years, until our son was at the play area in the mall and suddenly jumped up on a plastic sandwich and held his arms forward like he was wielding a machine gun, pointing his finger at the other children he was playing with and yelled, “die, soldiers, die!” He then proceeded to mow them all down like he was Rambo.

To this day I don’t know where he came up with that idea, but I guarantee it wasn’t from me. I really did respect my wife’s wishes. All I can guess is that it came from some other kid he was playing with, not that it matters: I knew that day was coming.

I laughed my ass off, and eventually my wife learned to laugh about it as well. To this day, of course, it is one of our favorite stories to tell other people, and she eventually came to accept what I had been telling her all along: that you can’t stop it and it’s harmless play and—whether you like it or not—it’s educational.

You see, such play is ingrained into the male psyche: we are born with it. What many women fail to realize is that boys go through this stage in their lives as a way of coping with the idea of violence and death and coming to terms with it. They need to visualize it and to think about it and to play it out in scenarios so they can learn from it and recognize the dangers of it and what happens when someone is violent. They learn that violence begets violence, and there are repercussions—and no winners. That way, when they grow up, after a hard day’s work they don’t punch their boss or go “hmmm...why don’t I just pull out a gun and shoot him?” Instead, they go: “Oh, yeah, it’s because the police will haul me away and throw away the key, or that poor schmuck’s brother or son will someday hunt me down for revenge. Or what if that poor schmuck was me? Would I like it if someone beat me up?”

One of the great things about role-playing games in my opinion is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes: it often gets you to think about things you otherwise wouldn’t think about and the repercussions. Every good Dungeon Master has done this: they’ve put their players through the occasional moral dilemma. So do authors and directors of most great books and movies.

Some of my best games, in fact, have involved moral dilemmas, though some have not. Sometimes, it’s just simple, harmless fun: a way to pretend you are a fighter doing something you would never do, opening up a can of whoop ass. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not like I am going to go around in real life and start slaying corporate bosses and teachers with a sword or something. Rather, it’s kind of like therapy: like the guy who likes to come home from work and take out his frustrations on a punching bag or something. It’s a release, and that’s all it is, a way of taking out pent-up frustration on something inanimate instead of a real person.

That said, I do think there should be some limits placed on the art WOC puts out in its next edition of D&D, simply for the fact that it is not necessary to take violence and gore to the extreme. After all, you don’t want to go so far that all parents refuse to let their kids play it. The game would quickly become dead from a lack of new players if you did. Also, you don’t want that violence to be so extreme that it becomes a farce and completely unrealistic.

While I think it’s okay and necessary to show some realistic amount of violence and gore in D&D, I don’t think it needs to be exaggerated to the point of becoming a Quentin Tarantino-style portrayal.

Under these guidelines, for instance, I think dismemberment should be avoided. Why? Because for one, it's unnecessary gore, and secondly (even more importantly) it is not realistic, at least when it comes to weapon fights. I remember seeing a Myth Busters show for dismemberment. In it, they proved it was impossible to lop off a limb or head while swinging weapons in combat. This was true even when they used large and unique weapons like a two-handed sword or a samurai sword. To make dismemberment possible, the situation has to be especially unique, like an execution in which a person's head is set in a block while a professional executioner uses an axe to cut the head, etc.

Sure, D&D is fantasy and there are going to be dragons and ogres, magic missiles, etc., but I still think it is beneficial to maintain a consistency to the world, as much as possible, so that people can buy into what they are seeing and playing. When it comes to dismemberment, there are two reasons to not use it: one, it's unnecessary gore, and two, it is physically impossible to do in the real world. Two strikes you're out! Story-wise, this makes it as silly as, say, a chain-mail bikini is when it comes to depicting women fighting in a fantasy environment. For that same reason, I am against bikini chain-mail portrayals. One, it's not realistic, and two, it offends many women.

As I’ve said before in Wizards Addresses Sexism in Fantasy, I think Wizards of the Coast should simply try to encourage its artists to think outside of the box more. On the one hand, they should not be afraid to allow artists to portray a little violence or to show a few images of beautiful women, but they also should not focus all their images on such things. Instead, they should ask their illustrators to start mixing in more story elements into their portrayals: to diversify. If an image doesn’t tell an interesting story, don’t bother to illustrate it. Does violence or gore really need to be in the image to tell the story effectively? If it does, then great. If it doesn’t, then get rid of it. They should also strive for their artists to create as much believability and consistency in their portrayals as possible, not to pursue something cartoonish or outlandish for outlandish sake.

Two strikes, you’re out.

What about you? Do you think Wizards of the Coast should tone down violence and gore in its illustrations or the way it portrays women, and how much?



06/04/2012 9:18am

I really enjoyed this article. I too am raising a boy and struggled with the violent play and letting boys be boys. I can get behind a certain degree of realism in d and d art. I never really liked the art in the 4e players guide too much. My concern is who get's to decide if something is offensive? Something that is offensive to me might be completely fine to others.

06/04/2012 9:41am

Every parent has to choose their own course when it comes to media/violence. I tend to think that making an active choice is what matters. If you choose to expose your kid to TV early, but make that choice responsibly and use it as an opportunity to parent, then that might be fine (though it is interesting that studies continue to show otherwise). Similarly, choosing not to expose kids to TV should be an active choice and there is a responsibility to educate the child as to the realities of the world and to what their peers will be doing.

With D&D, the game at its fundamental level is appealing to kids. Imagination, danger, treasure, fantasy? "Yes, please," they say. But, if the game is full of objectionable content then we can't use it. There are some 3E adventures that are pretty graphic. The recent Paizo comic examples are very gory. In the end it makes the game inaccessible for some families.

When I look at the excellent art you provided, I don't think the blood makes the picture. It could be minimized and be just as awesome, and then more parents would feel comfortable showing it to kids. Conversely, add the PC having their entrails half-out of their body and it becomes necessary to place it high up on some shelf and push back the time when it becomes a family game to an even later age.

While some have suggested making a kid's version, every kid knows they want the real thing. And parents want to use the real thing. While a kid's version is great for really small ages (especially to simplify the rules), the end result is still that the art of the books will decide whether kids can play D&D for many parents. For that reason, I would like to see the game err on the side of low gore and action over violence.

06/04/2012 5:52pm

Personally, I agree with the article and feel that the representative picture displays a good balance of "violence & gore" vs. being "child friendly". The image does show blood & what could be a dead man, yet it also refrains from showing the actual violent act of one stabbing another or having an arrow/bolt go through the neck.

It is my belief that if a parent finds this level of depiction to be too much then most likely that parent wouldn't let their child play D&D in the first place. In my experience both as a gamer & a minister; the parents who have shown such an extreme level of concern, are often the same parents who subscribe to the belief that D&D is a tool of the devil. Rather than get into a debate with them over something like that; I tell them that if God has put it in their heart that it is not appropriate for their child, then perhaps they are right & should find something better suited for the way they wish to raise their child.

Bottom line is that there will always be someone who is not happy with the choice that is offered & they are the ones who will have to seek out what is "right for them".

06/09/2012 12:15am

That's definitely one of the best illos in the PHB. It's such a great dramatic scene, and I think that the blood really heightens the visual impact. I agree it would be missing a lot of its punch without it (and lets face it, illustrations of undead monsters become a Scooby-Doo rerun without a little gore).

09/28/2013 1:02am

Thanks to your blog, I'm gonna create one now too, thank you.


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